Jean and I recently attended a trivia night – a fundraiser for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. There were about 300 participants, many of them book people, giving us a chance to catch up with the likes of head of the Australian Booksellers Association and fellow golf hacker Joel Becker, filmmaker Mike Thornhill, bookseller Morgan Smith, author Malcolm Knox and others. It was a good event, raising a substantial sum, and our table performed respectably without carrying away any prizes.
The night made me reflect on a time, not too long ago, when we used to go regularly to trivia nights at pubs and clubs in the Illawarra. There are quite a few essentials to be observed for a successful event, and some pitfalls. Above all there must be an MC who is witty and authoritative and who can pronounce unusual and foreign words correctly.
We had some bad nights with MCs who fell short of these requirements, were ignorant, in fact, and felt their job was more to entertain than to supervise an interesting contest. One woman in particular fancied herself a stand-up comic and singer and was embarrassingly bad as both.
Pubs are good venues for the supply of grog and food but when non-participants stand around and shout out the answers, the event is a disaster. Similarly, when people cheat by using mobile phones and other electronic devices the contest is undermined. These have to be strictly banned.
The range of the questions is important; it should reflect the makeup of the audience, which, typically, includes the young, the not so young and the mature. Too much pop culture frustrates the older players, too much sport annoys the sport-disinclined, too much science annoys the humanities types and vice versa.
By far the best series of trivia nights we experienced was at the Bulli/Woonona RSL Club, run by comedian Anthony Ackroyd. A charming, genuinely knowledgeable, widely-read man, an accomplished comic and actor, he entertained while overseeing a keenly contested event with serious players.
Ackroyd’s interaction with the players was masterly. He put down the smart-alecks and drunks, arbitrated disputes fairly and was never at a loss when tricky pronunciation or quick numerical calculations were required. The food was good and the bar prices reasonable.
My memory of these sessions is coloured by one night of success. At a table of five there was Jean, myself and three local friends, one an academic, one a lawyer, one a fire-fighter with wide interests. Our range of expertise was good and we drank moderately. Week by week the jackpot had mounted until this particular night it stood at $1400.
The jackpot was always decided by three questions, at least one of which was notoriously obscure or tricky. Teams had to write down the answers, spell the words absolutely correctly and be first back with the answers to Ackroyd. Usually we could provide one correct answer, sometimes two, sometimes none at all.
On this night the questions were easier than usual but the spelling and speed had to be spot-on; no slips. The questions were:
First, on which explorer was the Patrick White novel Voss based? No problem there for the literary types, but how many aitches were in the name? Some of us were unsure. Jean was positive.
Second, with what berry is gin flavoured? Between us many gins and tonics had gone down. Two out of two and we were on our toes.
Third, in what US state was Nicole Kidman born? I have no idea how I knew, but I did. The same, famously later, as Barak Obama. Jean scribbled and in her haste tore the paper. Aideen, the youngest and sprightliest of our group, was first to reach the microphone
Teasingly, Ackroyd slowly checked the spelling, queried the torn paper but declared us the winners.
We divvied up the money, given to us in cash, bought a bottle or two and blew the rest a few nights later at an excellent Indian restaurant. A night to remember.